The Robert Innes Smith Archive

...and the unexpected detective work of an Archive Assistant

Leters and photographs from the Robert Innes Smith archive

Hi there! My name is Hai Son ‘Steven’ Hong, and I am currently studying an MA in Applied Linguistics at the University of Sheffield. During the Spring semester, I had the opportunity to undertake a work placement as an Archive Assistant in the library’s Special Collections, Heritage and Archives (SCHA). Before I started, I thought that it was going to be like a regular desk job, however, to my surprise, I got to play the role of an amateur detective as I dug through old letters, newspaper cuttings, historical records, and artefacts to piece together the lives of influential people in the past. 

I was involved in cataloguing the Robert Innes Smith Archive, which includes letters, newspaper cuttings, photographs, and even keys to a manor house. Robert Innes Smith is a journalist, author, and former editor of Tatler magazine who has written mainly on country houses and castles, the aristocracy and heraldry. He is the grandson of Robert William Innes Smith (1872-1933), a medical practitioner and historian whose papers, books and portraits are part of SCHA’s holdings.

My job was to look at all the materials, arrange them into suitable series’ and catalogue them on a spreadsheet giving each series and item a unique reference code and brief description. This data was then imported into SCHA’s online catalogue Discover Our Archives. I also got to assist in digitising historical papers and pictures, and collecting data from Tiny Tags, which are used to monitor the environmental conditions of the archive storage. 

Archive  shelving and boxes

This experience has certainly opened my eyes to different career prospects after my degree. I really enjoyed working as an Archive Assistant, maybe a little bit too much at times… 

The thing I enjoyed the most about this placement was that I got to do more detective work than I had bargained for. Much of the correspondence did not have the full details of the senders, usually only their initials or first names, so I had to do some research on the Internet by using clues like the dates to make the catalogue as informative and as accurate as possible. I also had to read the information in other related letters, legal documents, and family trees to figure out people’s real names, titles, and relationship with Robert Innes Smith. I found the correspondents to include British aristocratic figures such as the Lechmere family who were friends with Robert Innes Smith and Robert was interested in the seat of Sir Berwick Lechmere in Worcestershire, and the British politician Oswald Mosley. Solving some of these ‘little mysteries’ made me feel like a detective in an Agatha Christie novel and brought me a sense of accomplishment. It also improved my skills in scanning and searching for sources which will be extremely useful for my upcoming assignments.

There were so many things I learned about the life of Robert Innes Smith, but the  thing I found most interesting was the fact that he and his family used to own and live in this beautiful manor house called Burton Hall. Before working on this archive, the first things that came to mind when I thought about old British manor estates are the cold, dusty and creaky houses with scary ghost stories like the ones in the series ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, but the letters, articles, and family photos from the archive have shown me a completely different picture. Other than possessing stunning architectural features and formal gardens, Burton Hall was a cosy family home filled with treasured memories. 

Even though the placement was short, it has been a fantastic and unforgettable experience. I have learned so much about the work that goes into preserving historical papers and artefacts for future generations. If you are interested in classic country houses, ancient castles, aristocracy, and heraldry, I recommend taking a look at the Robert Innes Smith Archive. You might even find a mystery waiting to be solved!

You can browse all of SCHA’s archives and special collections on Discover Our Archives and book an appointment to view them for free in the Reading Room. More information is on the website or you can email

Newspaper articles from Robert Innes Smith archive

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